Jonathan Toews wins Conn Smythe; Was he the best choice?

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toewsyoungestcaptain.jpgThere was a moment or two during this year’s playoffs when I wondered if Jonathan Toews might ascend another rung on the superstar ladder and join the truly elite players in the hockey world.

After he came down to earth a bit during the Cup finals, I’m not sure if he’s quite “there” yet. Instead, I guess Toews will just settle for this pittance of a year: an Olympic gold medal, being named a top forward for that tournament and now the dual honors of being the youngest captain to ever win a Stanley Cup (take that, Sidney Crosby!) and a Conn Smythe. All that for a 22-year-old nicknamed “Captain Serious” – who happens to rock some serious sideburns, to boot.

Considering the fact that the playoffs are often jam-packed with hockey heroism, debates over the “most deserving” Smythe winner will crop up in many circles. Before tonight’s game, I stated that Chris Pronger should win it (Cup or not) while Brandon picked the Blackhawks’ fantastic defenseman Duncan Keith.

While he faced similar struggles as his teammate, one could also make a decent argument for Patrick Kane, as well (and not just because of his courageous decision to grow a playoff mullet). Toews had three assists in the Cup finals to augment his 29 points overall (second only in the playoffs to the Flyers’ other dark horse Smythe candidate, Danny Briere, who scored 30). Kane wasn’t far behind with 28 of his own, though. The thing is, Kane put up much better numbers in the championship round. He had three goals and five assists for eight points, all in the last four games. Oh yeah, he also scored that oddball overtime game winner that clinched the first Blackhawks Cup since 1961. It’s at least reasonable to wonder if Kane’s late surge made him just as MVP-worthy.

Really, though, all that talk is just nitpicking at this point. Toews never stopped fighting … even when he wasn’t putting up numbers and even when he was on the wrong end of a Pronger collision. His “puck luck” seemed to run out after putting up a crazy 26 points through the first three rounds, yet few questioned his leadership or determination during the postseason.

He might not have the magical skills of a Gretzky or a Lemieux (or even his partner in crime, Patrick Kane) but he’s mature beyond his years when it comes to leading by example. I’ve heard the comparisons to Mark Messier – and while he might not match the bloodthirsty brutality of the man who broke the New York Rangers curse – he certainly seems to share that do-whatever-it takes DNA. And, really, you cannot complain too much about Messier comparisons, can you? (Unless someone says you have a “Messier-like” hairline. Then they’re being mean to you.)

For all we know, Toews could have 10-18 seasons left in his career. Chicago will have a “bulls-eye” on their collective backs during every game next season as contenders use those games as “measuring sticks” for their own progress. With a roster that could be at least dented – if not seriously damaged – by salary cap issues, the team will lean on Toews even more as time goes on. In other words, it’s only going to get tougher for the young Canadian leader to experience the joy of hoisting the Cup again.

Something tells me he’s not particularly worried about that right now, though.

Pre-game reading: Bettman insists NHL isn’t ‘anti-Olympics’

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— Up top, members of the Detroit Red Wings and their fans recall some of their fondest memories from Joe Louis Arena, which will host its last NHL game on Apr. 9.

— Here’s NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, speaking Friday in Chicago: “The league isn’t anti-Olympics. The problem is, the clubs are anti-disruption to the season. To disappear for almost three weeks in February when there is no football and baseball and it’s only basketball and … there’s no programming for the NHL Network, for NHL.com (and) all of our social media platforms. … If somebody proposes something dramatic and radically different that gets the attention of the clubs where they say, ‘You know what? We don’t like going but on balance it’s worth it because of this,’ we’ll have to look at it again. But overwhelmingly the sentiment of the clubs is it’s too disruptive.” (Chicago Tribune)

— The players have said they won’t negotiate with the league for the right to participate in the Olympics. But they’ve made no secret about their desire to go, as evidenced by ESPN’s lengthy list of player quotes on the topic. Said Steven Stamkos: “In talking to a lot of players, I’ve yet to hear someone say they didn’t want to get a chance to represent their country at the Olympics.” (ESPN)

— Whether the NHL continues its Olympic participation or not, it’s clear the league is eyeing China as part of its growth strategy. In September, the Canucks and Kings are expected to play a couple of exhibition games in Beijing and Shanghai. And according to deputy commissioner Bill Daly, there may even come a time when an NHL franchise is owned by Chinese business interests. (The Globe and Mail)

— Are the Bruins on the verge of collapse? CSNNE columnist Joe Haggerty saw some concerning signs in last night’s loss to Tampa Bay — a loss that put the B’s in further danger of falling out of a playoff position. Haggerty concludes: “Their next wrong move will cause a nosedive straight out of the playoffs for the third year in a row, and that will spell changes far and wide on Causeway Street for the Boston Bruins.” (CSN New England)

— Islanders rookie Josh Ho-Sang, who wears No. 66, is ready for — and even looking forward to — a hostile crowd tonight at PPG Paints Arena. “For me, Pittsburgh is the one city as a whole where I’m totally OK with them hating me. For wearing No. 66. Mario Lemieux is a hero, a pioneer for them there, and for them to take it as disrespect is completely understandable.” (Newsday)

Enjoy the games!

PS — Lemieux said he was “fine” with Ho-Sang wearing his old number.

In prepping Vegas for draft, McPhee cites ‘outstanding’ record with Caps

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George McPhee is a veteran of the draft process, having presided over nearly 20 during his time with the Caps.

This year, he’s in a unique position — spearheading the first draft for the expansion Las Vegas Golden Knights — and he suggests his past success should set him up well for the future.

“I think we have an outstanding staff,” McPhee said, per the club website. “I think our draft record in my previous job was outstanding.”

Assessments like these are always up for debate — draft success is somewhat subjective, and there are inevitably a bunch of misses among the hits — but McPhee does have a strong history of drafting and developing players, and could point to the current Capitals as validation to his claim.

The active roster has 11 players that were original draftees (Braden Holtby, Philip Grubauer, Dmitry Orlov, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Tom Wilson, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Marcus Johansson, Andre Burakovsky and Nicklas Backstrom), with goalies Holtby and Grubauer — both fourth-round picks — emerging as pretty good finds.

McPhee’s strategy? Go big or go home.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever played it safe going to the draft,” he explained. “I believe in swinging for the fences, and trying to find someone who can be a real difference maker. The difference makers are those core guys on your team, those 4-5 players that become elite players are the ones that can really take you a long way.

“They are hard to find. Those are the ones I’d like to swing for.”

At this year’s draft in Chicago, Vegas should have a shot at landing an impact guy. The club will have the same odds of winning the lottery as the team that finishes with the third fewest points this season and, though it’s considered a weak draft overall, there is some serious talent at the top end.

WHL Brandon’s Nolan Patrick, QMJHKL Halifax’s Nico Hischier and OHL Windsor’s Gabriel Vilardi are all considered high-end prospects and — importantly — all three play center. For a team that’s building from scratch, filling that position is of vital importance.

McPhee acknowledged this is a weaker draft, but contended those are the ones “where the best teams excel.” He theorizes that with fewer quality players available, the strongest teams emerge with the good ones.

He also shared how the Golden Knights plan to land ’em.

“We’re really aggressive,” he said. “We try not to play it safe very often.”

B’s ink prospects Fitzgerald, Johansson to entry-level deals

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Boston has brought a pair of talented youngsters into the fold.

Forward Ryan Fitzgerald, who just wrapped his senior season at Boston College, and defenseman Emil Johansson — who spent this year playing in the Swedish Hockey League — have signed their entry-level deals and will begin playing with the club’s AHL affiliate in Providence.

Fitzgerald — who’s father, Tom, is the assistant GM in New Jersey — scored 31 points in 34 games for BC this year, serving as an alternate captain. He was originally taken by Boston in the fourth round (120th overall) of the ’13 draft.

Johansson, 20, was a seventh-round pick in ’14 that’s panned out pretty well. He scored a career-high seven goals and 17 points in 49 games for Djugardens this year, appearing in three playoff contests.

 

 

Ducks send Stoner to AHL on conditioning loan

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Clayton Stoner is going to play some hockey again.

The Anaheim Ducks announced today that the 32-year-old defenseman has been assigned to AHL San Diego on a long-term injury conditioning loan.

Stoner has not played since Nov. 15. He had abdominal surgery in December, at which point the Ducks said he’d miss an additional 4-6 weeks. But a setback in his recovery extended the time frame.

“The setback was kind of just me trying to get back maybe a little bit quicker than I should,” Stoner told the O.C. Register recently. “And I wasn’t ready. Things have been good here for a little while so hopefully I’m just trying to string some days together and earn a spot back and kind of prove that I can be healthy and stay healthy.”