Mitch Marner

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Young Mitch Marner meme isn’t lost on Auston Matthews, Maple Leafs

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A couple of days ago, Mitch Marner was spotted at Pearson Airport in Toronto with a backwards baseball cap after flying back from a very impressive and productive run at the World Hockey Championship.

Hockey Twitter exploded with well-meaning laughter as the dazzlingly talented 20-year-old looked even younger than 20.

Even a few days later, it really is a sight to behold, whether you need a respite from politics or biting your nails about Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final:

As much as many of us deride this age of social media, it’s been a goldmine for self deprecating comedy from hockey players; as it turns out, Roberto Luongo doesn’t have that market completely cornered, either.

Not long ago, Auston Matthews jumped in on the Marner meme, and it was glorious:

To his credit, Marner himself joined in:

Is anyone else eager to see what these young stars come up with both on and off the ice during the next, oh, couple decades?

WATCH LIVE: Canada vs. Russia, World Hockey Championship semifinal

The World Hockey Championship features two classic rivalry matchups for its semifinal round on Saturday.

Later on, Sweden takes on Finland, because of course. The juiciest battle may just be coming up, however, as many in the hockey world still – justifiably – get excited for Canada vs. Russia.

To little surprise, both countries boast a heavy presence on the tournament’s points leaders listArtemi Panarin and Nikita Kucherov have carried over strong 2016-17 success to the tourney, while Nathan MacKinnon and Mitch Marner are leading the way for a typically loaded Canadian group.

The action is slated to begin at 9:15 a.m. ET. CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE.

Vlasic joins Canada for Worlds, extending marathon campaign

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Marc-Edouard Vlasic is putting in work this year.

On Friday, Hockey Canada announced that Vlasic — along with Mitch Marner, Brayden Schenn and Chad Johnson — has been added to the 22-player roster for the upcoming World Hockey Championship in France and Germany.

Vlasic’s season started early as a member of Canada’s World Cup of Hockey squad. He appeared in all six games, which included his tournament high TOI (24:04) in final against Team Europe.

From there, the 30-year-old rejoined the Sharks and appeared in 75 contests, averaging 21:14 per evening. He was part of a remarkably durable San Jose defense that saw Brent Burns play all 82 games, while Paul Martin, Brenden Dillon and Justin Braun appeared in 81.

In the playoffs, Vlasic was once again a busy guy. He finished second only to Burns in time on ice (23:16 per) and was often tasked with trying to shut down the Connor McDavid line. The Sharks would eventually bow out to the Oilers in six games.

And Vlasic might have even more to do this summer.

During his end-of-year media availability, Sharks GM Doug Wilson said getting Vlasic signed to an extension prior to September’s training camp was a big priority.

Vlasic’s current deal — a five-year, $21.25 million pact — expires next summer, and carries an average cap hit of $4.25M. Wilson didn’t mince words in describing how good he thinks Vlasic is.

“Vlasic [is] arguably one of the best defensemen in the league,” he said. “Marc-Edouard is still one of the most underrated players in the league in the outside world.”

Are the Leafs getting into ‘go for it’ territory?

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Two years ago, Mike Babcock came to Toronto and predicted there would be “pain.”

He was right for one year. The Maple Leafs finished dead last in 2015-16, then got Auston Matthews as a reward.

But the pain didn’t last long, in large part thanks to Matthews. The Leafs made the playoffs in Babcock’s second season as head coach, and they even gave the Washington Capitals a good scare in the first round.

Now the question has to be asked — should the Leafs start going for it?

Your first instinct may be to laugh. But it is not such a ridiculous question when you consider Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Anze Kopitar, and Drew Doughty were all in their early 20s when they won the Stanley Cup for the first time.

Mathews turns 20 in September, and he’s already one of the NHL’s best centers. Wingers William Nylander, 20, and Mitch Marner, 19, aren’t too bad either, and neither is 26-year-old center Nazem Kadri.

All four of those forwards are under club control for years to come. Also locked up long term is starting goalie Frederik Andersen.

If there’s a weakness, it’s the back end. Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, and Nikita Zaitsev can all move the puck well, but defensively they’re still suspect. What the Leafs could really use is a top-four defenseman who can match the Leafs’ pace while also killing penalties and shutting down the opposition’s top players. And if he can play the right side, even better.

Of course, you know who else could use a defenseman like that? The other 30 teams. Top-four defensemen are not cheap to get on the trade market. Just ask the Edmonton Oilers.

Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello met with the media Tuesday to reflect on the season, and also give his thoughts on the future. He said the Leafs have to be careful not to get complacent, that it only gets harder now. He was asked about the market for defensemen. He said it’s hard to gauge because of the expansion draft.

But Lamoriello also said, “There’s a five-year plan that changes every day.”

Which would suggest the Leafs are willing to accelerate their schedule — that they may, in fact, see an opportunity to compete for the Cup a lot sooner than they originally thought possible.

Consider:

The Penguins went from out of the playoffs in ’06, to losing in the first round in ’07, to the Stanley Cup Final in ’08, then won it all in ’09.

The Blackhawks went from out of the playoffs in ’08, to the conference finals in ’09, to a championship in ’10.

The Kings went from out of the playoffs in ’09 to winning the Cup in ’12.

So… if you were the Leafs, wouldn’t you see an opportunity, too?

2017 Calder Trophy finalists: Patrik Laine, Auston Matthews, Zach Werenski

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The NHL has announced the finalists for the 2017 Calder Trophy, given to the league’s top rookie.

Patrik Laine of the Winnipeg Jets, Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Zach Werenski of the Columbus Blue Jackets were named finalists for the award.

Laine and Matthews were obvious choices given their exciting penchant for scoring, but there were several young players — William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Sebastian Aho to name a few — that could’ve easily been named the third finalist. Members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association submitted their votes at the end of the regular season.

Matthews and Laine went No. 1 and No. 2 overall in last year’s draft, prompting incredible anticipation around the league for what they could accomplish this season. And they didn’t disappoint.

Matthews, 19, led all rookies in scoring, with 40 goals and 69 points, helping the Maple Leafs to a playoff position. His NHL career began with a record-setting debut and he continued to delight from there. He finished tied for second overall in goal scoring alongside Nikita Kucherov. Matthews ended the season only four goals behind Sidney Crosby, this year’s Rocket Richard Trophy winner.

Laine, who just turned 19 years old on Wednesday, finished fifth in overall goal scoring and second in rookie goal scoring. He tallied 36 goals, showing off an incredibly accurate and quick wrist shot. He also had 64 points, second behind Matthews in the rookie race.

Werenski, also 19 years old, had an impressive rookie season on defense for the Blue Jackets. He had 47 points in 78 games, averaging almost 21 minutes of ice time per game. His freshman campaign bodes well for the future in Columbus, especially since he plays such a difficult position for younger players in the league. Not only did he play, but he often excelled. Unfortunately, he suffered a facial fracture in Game 3 of the Blue Jackets’ first-round series with Pittsburgh, ending his season.

The winner will be announced June 21 at the NHL Awards in Las Vegas.