Chris Higgins is back in Cowtown.
On Tuesday, the Flames announced that Higgins would be attending training camp on a professional tryout, bringing him back to the organization he played part of the 2009-10 campaign with.
Higgins, 33, had spent the last six years in Vancouver. His stint with the Canucks included some quality highs — a trip to the ’11 Stanley Cup Final, and an 18-goal, 43-point season the year following — but ended on a sour note last spring when, after GM Jim Benning failed to orchestrate a trade, Higgins was placed on waivers and spent time in AHL Utica.
All told, Higgins finished the campaign with three goals and four points in 33 contests.
In June, the Canucks bought out the last of his four-year, $10 million deal.
Higgins has played in Calgary before — as mentioned above — but that’s not his only connection to the organization. The Flames’ new head coach, Glen Gulutzan, was the assistant in Vancouver for the last three years and worked closely with Higgins (who had a good season in Gulutzan’s first year with the Canucks, scoring 17 goals and 39 points).
This post is part of Toronto Maple Leafs day at PHT…
It’s the collective, really.
There’s no single reason why Auston Matthews was our clear cut choice for today’s “Under Pressure” post.
No single reason, because there are so many reasons.
There were the names, too.
Matthews is now linked to Patrick Kane, after becoming the first American to go No. 1 overall since Chicago took Kane nine years ago. Matthew is also now forever linked to Leafs legend Wendel Clark — Toronto’s last No. 1 overall pick, taken all the way back in 1985.
Then, there’s his pedigree.
And with that pedigree comes privilege.
Before he ever played a second of NHL hockey, Matthews was named to Team North America for the World Cup of Hockey — ahead of the likes of Max Domi, Boone Jenner and Alex Galchenyuk, the latter a 30-goal scorer and already a veteran of nearly 300 NHL contests.
Pundits have already slotted Matthews into a top-two center role in Toronto, one that will come with all the requisite power play time befitting a special offensive talent. As a result, expectations for this year are sky high. A recent NHL.com projection said the 60-point plateau should be within reach, and think pieces about how other rookies won’t just concede the Calder.
Smartly, but perhaps futilely, Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello is trying to shield Matthew from some of pressure that comes along with being, y’know, the savior of a team in one of the league’s most storied markets.
“I don’t think there’s any player that’s going to be the face of this franchise,” Lamoriello said at the draft, when asked if Matthews would be exactly that. “The logo will be the face of the franchise.”
Lamoriello went on to say that when “you’re taking an 18-year-old and expect him to do wonders, it’s not fair.”
No, it’s not fair.
But it is the reality.
This post is part of Toronto Maple Leafs day at PHT…
“I think he’s going to surprise a lot of people. The physical part of the game will be different for him in the NHL, but the way he moves the puck and skates and how defensive you now have to be to play, it just really makes you think he can be really successful for the Leafs.”
So needless to say, expectations for Zaitsev this season are fairly high.
And they’re high for reason. At 24, the undrafted blueliner has a wealth of professional experience — seven full campaigns, split between Novosibirsk and CSKA Moscow — and really came into his own over the last few years. He routinely led CSKA in d-man scoring, and was named a KHL first-team all-star in ’14-15.
That pedigree should translate into plenty of opportunities in Toronto.
And hey, Toronto has plenty of opportunities to offer.
It’s likely one of the big reasons Zaitsev chose the Leafs over other interested suitors like Calgary, Vancouver, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh (per Sportsnet). The Leafs are still in the early stages of their rebuild, and it shows on defense — based on current projections, Zaitsev could open as a top-four guy alongside Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner and Matt Hunwick, leapfrogging the likes of Martin Maricin, Roman Polak and Connor Carrick in the process.
The great unknown, of course, is how his success in the KHL will translate into North America. Every NHL club is hoping to land the next Artemi Panarin, but it’s important to remember that 1) Panarin is a forward, and 2) jumped onto a line next to Patrick Kane.
The transition for defenders has generally been tougher, something folks in Philly saw last year with the failed Evgeny Medvedev experience.
Of course, Zaitsev has a few more things going for him than his fellow Russian. He’s younger than Medvedev by nearly a decade, and is a coveted right-handed shot (Medvedev’s a lefty).
And like most players coming over from the KHL, Zaitsev’s on a one-year, performance bonus-laden contract that amounts to a “prove it” deal in the NHL.
That should be enough motivation to help him make the leap.
And if it’s not, there’s always the leap back to Russia.
The Carolina Hurricanes locked in a key part — arguably the most key part — of their rebuild on Tuesday, signing GM Rom Francis to a contract extension through the 2018-19 campaign.
“Ron has rebuilt our organization the right way, stocking our team and system with young players who will help this franchise compete for the Stanley Cup year in and year out,” club owner Peter Karmanos said in a release. “I’m thrilled that he will continue to see the job through.
“The future is very bright for the Hurricanes in Carolina.”
Francis, 53, has been on the job in Carolina for the past two years, and has done a terrific job of stockpiling young talent through the draft and via trade: Noah Hanifin, Teuvo Teravainen, Sebastian Aho, Haydn Fleury, Jake Bean and Julien Gauthier, to name a few.
Francis was also instrumental in hiring head coach Bill Peters. At the time of the hire, Peters was something of an unknown — an under-the-radar assistant with no NHL head coaching experience — but has since developed into one of the game’s more respected bench bosses.
Peters was named the bench boss for Team Canada at the most recent world championship, and led the country to gold.
This fall, he’ll reprise his role as Mike Babcock’s assistant for Canada at the World Cup of Hockey.
“When you go back a couple years ago, there were a lot of questions about who we had hired,” Francis explained in July, when he extended Peters’ contract through 2019. “[Peters] wasn’t really well known, but in the two years he’s been here, he’s done a tremendous job.”
For all the praise Francis has received during his short time on the job in Carolina, there is one area of concern — goaltending. This summer, Francis made the curious move of bringing Cam Ward back on a two-year deal, resurrecting the Ward-Eddie Lack tandem that struggled at times last season.
It’ll be interesting to see how that move plays out.