James O'Brien

I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.

The occasionally progressive Mike Babcock on Mitch Marner


For all the flack Mike Babcock takes for his scowling and hard-nosed ways, he really comes across as progressive to the press.

You could argue that there was nothing extraordinary about his conversation with TSN about promising prospect Mitch Marner.

Saying that a high-end prospect was “magical” during a practice and that he has a good chance to make the Toronto Maple Leafs next season isn’t groundbreaking. Praising other coaches isn’t unusual, either.

Still, it’s refreshing to hear Babcock’s positive approach to subjects like Marner putting on weight. Rather than making it a high-pressure sell, he insists “all you have to do is get stronger” and that he wants him to be … the best Mitch he can be.

(It’s kind of adorable.)

The Maple Leafs should really follow Bab’s advice and let the players solve that problem for them, as there are advantages to keeping Marner with the team (getting his NHL reps) versus being sent down (saving ELC years, giving him time to mature).

Either way, it makes you wonder if Babcock’s approach really sets him apart. Yes, there’s that taskmaster side, but there’s also open-minded you don’t always see in the “stricter” types.

People love to beat up on the Leafs, including with Babcock and his hefty salary.

They’ll make mistakes along the way, yet interviews like these give you the impression that the team is in much abler hands.

NHL.com has more on Babcock eyeing Marner here.

Peters and the Hurricanes are closer to contending than you might think


This is part of Hurricanes day at PHT …

The headlines haven’t been so great for the Carolina Hurricanes as of late.

From owner Peter Karamanos being sued by his sons to the team addressing relocation concerns and a lengthy playoff drought, big-picture issues abound.

Look a little closer, however, and you’ll realize that head coach Bill Peters is brewing something special in Carolina.

Peters prompts promising possession

When you look at various possession metrics, you tend to see the “usual suspects” among the NHL’s best. For one example: Los Angeles ranks as the perennial leader in Corsi Close while 2016 Stanley Cup Finalists Pittsburgh and San Jose finished in the top five this season.

You might be surprised to see the Carolina Hurricanes ranking in or around the top 10 in those stats, but it’s no accident.

TSN’s Travis Yost notes that Carolina has been winning the shot differential battle more and more under Peters:

So, yes, the signs are very encouraging for this Carolina group – a true ‘outsider’ from our usual playoff discussions, but one that could certainly become a problem for contenders within the next season or two. The underlying numbers have grown increasingly encouraging to the point where one would be foolish to consider them as an ‘also ran’.

There are reasons to believe that this group can climb the ladder in 2016-17 and beyond. Peters ranks as one of the big reasons why, as the ‘Canes noted after wisely re-signing him.

“We think we’re right there,” GM Ron Francis said in late July. “We want to get in the playoffs, and we want to have success around here.”

Green on the blueline

The Hurricanes’ young, talented defense corps ranks as their most obvious strength.

Noah Hanifin already has a season under his belt at just 19, and he could be Carolina’s answer to Aaron Ekblad. Justin Faulk, 24, flies under the radar as one of the league’s better scoring defensemen.

Ryan Murphy (23), Jacob Slavin (22) and Brett Pesce (21) have been getting some NHL seasoning lately, yet they’ll need to watch their backs for highly promising prospects Haydn Fleury (19) and Roland McKeown (20).

At 35, Ron Hainsey is the guy who can take these kids under his wing … and maybe tell them about the days of rotary phones and 56K modems.

Scoring by committee

Jeff Skinner led the Hurricanes in 2015-16 with an unremarkable 51 points. On paper, this bunch still seems unlikely to blow out many opponents.

That said, it’s plausible that the ‘Canes may succeed in leveraging the depth they’re building.

GM Ron Francis bolstered their veteran ranks by signing journeyman Lee Stempniak and solid depth guy Viktor Stalberg. Teuvo Teravainen will have every chance to blossom, while Bryan Bickell could rebuild his career.

Much like on D, youth is the biggest reason to be excited about their forwards.

Teravainen is just 21. Victor Rask seems like a core piece at 23 after signing an extension. Elias Lindholm (21) is in that mode where he could make a quantum leap, too. Somehow, eternally boyish winger Jeff Skinner is just 24.

(Jordan Staal isn’t exactly ancient at 27, either.)

Work in progress

Look, this is not to say that the Hurricanes will be sipping champagne from the Stanley Cup in June 2017.

They made the baffling decision to re-sign Cam Ward, walking back some of the feelings of a fresh start. And, yes, it’s true that they lack an elite scorer.

Still, it’s been ages since the Hurricanes even made the playoffs, and they’re closer to that goal than you might think.

Tyler Seguin sounds ready – and excited – for World Cup of Hockey


It sounds like Tyler Seguin has a great chance at participating in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, and it doesn’t sound like he views that as a chore.

He addressed his health on Saturday, as NHL.com reports.

“[I’m] doing well,” Seguin said. “[It’s been a] bit of a different summer as far as training wise just coming off an injury, but feeling great and looking forward to the World Cup.”

Again, he sounds excited about the experience, as he expects to see “the best of the best” on hand.

Naturally, Seguin is also focused on the Stars’ upcoming season. He believes that the team’s window for a big run just opened up, and he’s probably correct.

(It’s something Jamie Benn discussed while explaining his rationale for re-signing with the Stars.)

Tournaments like these probably get fans and teams a touch nervous about a player rushing back. That’s especially reasonable since one could argue that Seguin wasn’t really ready to return during the 2016 playoffs.

On the other hand, it’s a rare treat to see “the best of the best” compete before the season starts, so don’t blame Seguin for being enthusiastic.

Read more from Seguin at NHL.com.

Wayne Gretzky’s rookie card auctions off for record $465K


In true Wayne Gretzky fashion, his rookie card auctioned off for a record that vastly outpaces any other hockey card.

Gretzky’s 1979 O-Pee-Chee card was auctioned off for $465K to an anonymous buyer on Thursday, according to the CBC and other outlets.

NHL.com notes that one big distinction was that the card was in mint condition. This blows away a previous mark, also set by a Gretzky card, which went for a little less than $100K in 2011.

Here’s what the card looks like:

The back of the card looks like this, and really makes the whole thing that much more charming:

As with any mention of a card drawing big auctions, people look back to their younger days, when they wished they kept better care of the things:

Hey, even Wayne couldn’t win them all.

(H/T to NHL.com)

Coyotes are open to making a deal to break up ‘logjam’ on defense


Judging by some of this off-season’s big moves, having “too many defensemen” is a problem most NHL teams would love to have.

The Arizona Coyotes seem loaded with options on the blueline, and that might just prompt them to make a trade, something new GM John Chayka admitted to the Arizona Republic.

“Anything can happen in camp, too, so you go from having some depth to potentially being a little lean pretty quickly in this league,” Chayka said. “We see it as a strength. If there’s an opportunity to deal from strength, then we’ll do that. But if there’s a move that makes sense for everybody and it certainly appears there’s a logjam right now, we’re open to improving our group and continuing to find a solution that makes everyone better.”


McLellan notes that the Coyotes view their top four defensemen as a combination of Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Alex Goligoski, Michael Stone and Connor Murphy.

The depth spots are where things get interesting. Arizona’s available options include Luke Schenn, Zbynek Michalek, Kevin Connauton, Klas Dahlbeck, Anthony DeAngelo, Jamie McBain and eventually Jarred Tinordi.

(And that’s assuming that 2016 first-round pick Jakob Chychrun doesn’t push for an immediate jump to the NHL …)

Those defensemen have their flaws here and there, but almost every one of those depth names is marketable in some way or another.

It wouldn’t be shocking if the cost-conscious Coyotes pitched one of those guys to a GM whose team gets hit hard with early pre-season or regular season injuries.

One can debate the notion that Max Domi‘s being a little hasty in pumping up Arizona’s playoff potential. Either way, it really feels like the Coyotes are building something interesting in the desert, and part of that comes down to buying up supplies in an area of heavy demand.

Could your team use one of those guys?